“The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress” by Ariel Lawhon
304 pages, Doubleday
Published Jan. 14, 2014
“Everything in this city is based on favors. In one way or another.”
So says Stella Crater, wife of New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph Crater, in “The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress.” On Aug. 6, 1930, after having drinks at a New York City speakeasy with his associate William Klein and his mistress, Broadway showgirl Sally Lou Ritz, Judge Crater hops into a cab and is never seen again.
But there’s more to his disappearance that meets the public eye.
Judge Crater’s wife, the Craters’ maid Maria, and Sally Lou “Ritzi” Ritz know more than they’re letting on. So does Owney Madden, a notorious gangster who’s a big backer of Broadway shows and other vested interests. Further complicating matters is the fact that Maria’s husband Jude is an NYPD detective who’s assigned to the case. Worlds again collide when Maria, a part-time tailor at a menswear store, is given the task of designing several suits for Madden.
All these characters are inextricably linked in Judge Crater’s disappearance, and they all have alibis — some more trustworthy than others.
Let me start by saying, the cover of this book was what grabbed me. I love the glitz and glamor of the Jazz Age, and the synopsis was too delicious to resist. The book alternates between 1930-31, before, during and after the disappearance of Judge Crater, and 1969, when a dying Stella Crater makes her annual trip to the speakeasy, Club Abbey, to toast the memory of her husband. This may be the last time, though, as Stella is dying of cancer. This year, she invites Jude to join her, as she has something to tell him about what happened to the judge.
“The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress” has this irresistible noir atmosphere that kept me hooked. Lawhon really captured the essence of this chapter in history, from the fashion to the entertainment to the pulsing undercurrent of corruption that pervaded the Prohibition era. And I’d be remiss not to point out that the book is based on actual events. There really was a NY Supreme Court judge named Joseph Crater. He really did go missing, and Sally Lou Ritz was indeed one of the last people who saw him. Obviously, Lawhon had to embellish in order to turn this true story into a novel, but I think she did a fine job of it.
The ending, which, again, was embellished as we don’t know what became of Judge Crater, was deeply satisfying and well planned. The author did a lot of research while writing this book, using sources such as Stella Crater’s “The Empty Robe: The Story and Legend of the Disappearance of Judge Crater” (which I would love to read).
Fictionalizations of actual events sometimes give me pause, but “The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress” proves that it can be done right.
About the author
Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads.org, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and four young sons. She is the author of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS (2014) and HINDENBURG (2016) both published by Doubleday. Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.
Bio and photo courtesy of author’s Goodreads page